Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe: Was it Successful?

By Izaak Radecki

“The Point of Departure in Any Discussion of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust Must Be the Basic Fact that the Jewish People Did Not Succeed in Defending These Lives.”

In 1968, Leni Yahil stated this claim at the opening lecture of Yad Vashem’s first international scholars’ conference, insisting that Jewish attempts at resistance in the Holocaust were ultimately futile and did not save Jewish lives.[1] Indeed, Yahil’s assessment reflected the cornerstone rhetoric of most Jewish communities for decades following the war.[2] Considering the immediate post-war shock from the loss of life in the Holocaust which catalysed this outlook, it is understandable that Yahil may have overlooked subtle forms of resistance because emphasis was inevitably placed on active resistance. Perhaps in 1968 the range of approaches to Jewish resistance across Europe and the international community during the war was not clear to her. Admittedly, armed Jewish resistance movements which aimed to actively oppose the Nazi regime unsurprisingly became the clearest to assess in terms of ‘success’ immediately after the war.[3] However, forms of passive resistance such as escaping, hiding, and smuggling information cannot be accurately measured by how effectively they led to Nazi deaths in the same way that armed resistance could. Instead, these forms of passive resistance must be understood in relation to the context of an intensifying Judenpolitik, whereby the Nazi regime sought the extermination of all Jews.[4] Under those circumstances, Ruby Rohrlich stated that mere survival until the end of the war should be counted as Jewish resistance.[5] In retrospect, survival of the intensifying Nazi Judenpolitik was such a monumental achievement that its success should indeed be considered as a form of resistance. Therefore, this essay will examine the success of the armed resistance movement of ŻOB in the Warsaw ghetto and the rescue and hiding of Jews by the Bielski partisans in Belorussia. However, aside from the instances of active and passive resistance practiced in these examples, the work of intellectual Jews to document the ordeals of resistance movements should also be considered as a form of resistance, albeit passive. Therefore, this essay will evaluate the success of resistance movements across Eastern Europe in conjunction with Yahil’s statement. By examining such a variety of resistance movements within a range of different contexts, it will be possible to understand why Yahil came to her conclusion in 1968 while also asserting the standpoint that today, we can understand Jewish resistance in forms which Yahil did not, and that these methods often proved successful.

In terms of armed Jewish resistance, the most popular movements during the war years were largely quashed by the Nazi oppressors. Therefore, immediately after the end of the war, it is understandable that historians like Yahil would have perceived these movements as a failure. For instance, during the Spring of 1943, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto initiated some of the fiercest fighting by the European Jewry in an uprising against the Nazi regime in Poland’s capital which would be prominently remembered long after the end of the war.[6] The armed resistance movement was led by Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ŻOB), a collective of Jewish youth, Zionist, and socialist organisations, and lasted just 28 days, resulting in an inevitable failure.[7] Although Dan Michman highlighted that Yahil most likely did not base her claim specifically on the failure of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as one of the most popularly commemorated instances of armed Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, it is reasonable to use this example to represent how historians like Yahil have interpreted the failures of armed Jewish resistance. Therefore, in order to measure the success of armed resistance movements, the specific aims of the movement must be considered. By 1943, it was clear that armed Jewish resistance like that of ŻOB sought to actively oppose the Nazi occupiers at any cost.[8] As such, it must be acknowledged that the aims of ŻOB were twofold: to save Jewish lives, and to take German ones.[9] Indeed, the deaths of at least 7,000 Jews in the fighting alongside the 7,000 participants who were sent directly to Treblinka does support Yahil’s suggestion in the sense that armed resistance movements were often crushed and could not succeed in protecting those Jews who were directly involved in the resistance themselves.[10] Furthermore, as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an unprecedented instance of active Jewish resistance, the actions of ŻOB unfortunately complimented the popular Nazi fantasy of an underground Jewish conspiracy to attack German soldiers.[11] Therefore, by using armed resistance, ŻOB exacerbated the failure of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was not only confirmed by the loss of life among the resistance fighters, but by the vicious reprisals the Nazis undertook against the remaining Jews in Warsaw afterwards. As the Jürgen Stroop’s report details, these reprisals consisted of the deportation of over 50,000 Jews from the ghetto, either to their deaths or into forced labour, after the uprising.[12] Indeed, it is clear that in the case of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Jewish armed resistance failed to save those involved, while it also failed to save the lives of Jews who were not directly involved in the fighting. Overall, ŻOB had failed to achieve its aim of saving Jewish lives, and as such, Yahil’s statement is justified.

However, this only addresses the failure of one aim of ŻOB. Much to the benefit of Yahil’s statement, for the most part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the aim to take German lives was admittedly not as much of a priority to ŻOB as saving Jews. However, as conditions in the Warsaw ghetto became increasingly desperate with the intensification of Judenpolitik, more violent anti-Nazi rhetoric formed a united sense of nationalism among the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto.[13] This was particularly popular among young Zionists, like those fighting for ŻOB, and led to a shift in priorities among those fighting the Nazis within the ghetto. In fact, David Cesarani noted that Yitzhak Zuckerman, a prominent ŻOB commander, stated in one of his last reports from 1944 that the armed resistance ‘didn’t have a rescue plan [for other Jews in the ghetto] because we didn’t figure that any of us would survive’.[14] The hopelessness expressed by one of the most influential Jewish resistance leaders signified an abandonment of the value placed on all Jewish life which fell in line with the knowledge of the Nazi decision to exterminate the entire Jewish race. Therefore, it is clear that targeting Germans and taking revenge became a more popular aim as the horrors of life in the Warsaw ghetto intensified. Although the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was ultimately crushed, ŻOB fighters took the lives of ‘roughly sixteen’ Germans, ‘wounded eighty-five’, and killed an unknown number of Ukrainian auxiliaries, according to Cesarani.[15] Through this, Yahil’s suggestion loses some of its gravity as even though the Jewish casualties dwarfed those of the Nazis, if the aim of ŻOB was to fight for reprisals rather than to immediately defend Jewish lives, then this was principally achieved. In terms of armed resistance, it is understandable that Yahil reached the conclusion she did in 1968, as active fighting against the Nazis regime often did result in further loss of Jewish life, which is evident from the example of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. However, the connotations of ultimate failure which underpinned her conclusions require critical reconsideration. If saving Jewish lives became less of an immediate priority for resistance groups such as ŻOB, then Yahil’s sentiment needs to be contextualised, and success needs to be re-measured in terms of the aims of resistance movements.

Not only does Yahil neglect the shifting objectives of resistance movements throughout the war years, but her sentiment also fails to consider the practicalities of organising a successful resistance movement under Nazi occupation. The various diplomatic obstacles that were overcome by Jewish organisations of very different political, religious, and ideological standpoints are underappreciated by Yahil’s conclusion. Indeed, in the case of ŻOB, the only reason that action was not taken earlier was due to older, more established Jewish organisations, such as the Jewish Council, being unwilling to compromise their political views to form a united resistance movement.[16] Therefore, when Jewish youth movements, with differing political views from Zionism to socialism, were eventually backed by the Bund to form a united resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto under the name of ŻOB, these obstacles had effectively been overcome.[17] Admittedly, it was easier to unite youth movements of differing political views than more conservative Jewish organisations; however, there were still potential obstructions to the unification of these groups, and therefore, the mere creation of ŻOB proved a diplomatic success in the first steps to resisting the Nazi regime and saving Jewish lives. In fact, the initial failure of conservative Jewish organisations to develop a collective resistance movement ultimately led to Jewish deaths, as the Warsaw ghetto continued to be liquidated unchallenged. While this perspective is only speculative, as it can never be proven that an earlier resistance movement would have saved more Jewish lives, what can be proven is that several resistance fighters survived the war. For instance, Zuckerman’s absence from the uprising, which led to his survival on the Aryan side of the Warsaw ghetto stemmed from the fact that he was on a courier mission for ŻOB.[18] The survival of resistance fighters like Zuckerman is entirely overlooked by Yahil’s assessment, as is the diplomatic marvel of uniting such diverse Jewish organisations in the increasingly conditions of the Warsaw ghetto after 1942.

To interpret Yahil’s statement as it was intended, that is, in terms of measuring the success of saving Jewish lives, means that any attempt by Jews to save the lives of their people should be considered as a form of resistance. From 1942, it is now known that the Nazi plan for the Jews of Europe was total extermination.[19] Therefore, mere survival and preserving Jewish life should constitute a form of resistance, as this defied the Nazi plans to implement the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe. For instance, in terms of passive resistance, Yisrael Gutman noted that armed resistance distracted the Germans from the ‘bunkers’ which were made specifically for hiding Jews who were not involved in any resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto, which saved approximately 3,000 lives by the time of the second Aktion in January 1943.[20] However, this style of using armed resistance to protect the more vulnerable Jews in hiding was not exclusive to the Warsaw ghetto. In fact, Nechama Tec highlighted the primary aim of the Bielski partisans, specifically Tuvia Bielski, ‘to live [and] to keep his people alive’.[21] Once the Bielski otriad had fled to the forest, they soon realised that armed resistance was going to be fundamental to survival, not only because the forest setting gave them an advantage in combat, but because of the potential advantages of collaborating with nearby Russian partisans.[22] In the case of the Bielski otriad, collaboration with nearby Russian partisan movements was fundamental to securing resources such as food, weapons, and medicine, which could be taken back to their camp in the Belorussian forest. To the Russian partisans, killing Germans equated a form of unity through nationalism, and eventually became a method of proving the worth of the Bielski fighters.[23] Therefore, the survival of the 1,000 Jews who could not actively fight the Germans depended on the few Jewish partisans, such as Tuvia, who could. While the fighting of ŻOB in the Warsaw ghetto had unconsciously saved the lives of hidden Jews during the Aktion, the leaders of the Bielski otriad realised quickly that they needed to prioritise anti-Nazi measures and actively fight Germans in order to earn the survival of the Jews they were protecting. Although in both of these individual cases, only approximately 4,000 Jewish lives were saved through resistance, this must still be considered a success in spite of Yahil’s assessment, as preserving Jewish life was a method of successfully defying the Nazi regime in Eastern Europe. Dan Michman recognised that Yahil was referring to a much larger scale in her argument; specifically, that any discussion of Jewish resistance should take into account the fact that no movement was able to save the lives of the millions who died.[24] However, this is not a fair or comprehensive approach to understanding the successes of smaller Jewish resistance movements which did save lives. By stating that this ultimate failure should provide the basis of ‘any discussion of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust’, Yahil completely fails to acknowledge the various successes of ŻOB and the Bielski partisan movements which did save a significant number of Jewish lives.[25] These instances of bravery make it clear that arguments of proportionality must be deployed responsibly by historians with regard to assessing the success of wartime Jewish resistance movements. Movements such as these could not have been aware of the full extent of the holocaust, so to them, and discussions surrounding their activities, their successes must be acknowledged.[26]

While most resistance movements may not have appreciated the full extent of destruction to the Jewish population of Europe, established Jewish groups such as ŻOB established networks of communication for the very purpose of attempting to understand the Nazi’s plans for the European Jewry.[27] ŻOB’s couriers were fundamental sources of information which gave an accurate insight into the mass murder that was occurring elsewhere in Poland, and particularly at camps such as Będzin, towards the later years of the war.[28] The ŻOB courier system is an unfortunate testament to Yahil’s belief that no discussion of Jewish resistance can be undertaken without the acceptance that movements failed to save most Jewish lives, although not because of the information or the couriers themselves. When information of mass murder was received by ŻOB in Warsaw as early as 1941, only very few Jewish organisations both believed and appreciated the news.[29] Therefore, despite such details often being very accurate, there was no way of proving this to contemporaries, and so, no action was taken towards a collective resistance movement during the initial liquidations. The tragedy here lies in the fact that the resistance in Warsaw actively sought, and succeeded in acquiring details of organised murder in the east; however, because few believed, it cannot be argued that this form of resistance saved any lives between 1941 and 1942, before the remaining Jews started to actively hide and fight back. Thus, Yahil’s claim is reinforced, as the ŻOB courier system failed to do what it had initially set out to, and inform the Warsaw Jewry of the mass murder to the east in order to prevent the loss of life which did eventually occur.[30]

Despite the contemporary gathering of information in Warsaw essentially failing to prevent the loss of life, it is still possible to perceive the preservation of such information not only as a mere form of Jewish resistance, but as a successful method of defying the Nazis. By successfully collecting and disseminating the details of mass murder, individuals such as Frumka Płotnicka, who acted as an information courier, allowed the Jewish underground press to undertake a form of polemic resistance against the Nazi regime.[31] Yehuda Bauer extended Oneg Shabbat’s concept that gathering and retaining details of mass murder which the Nazis explicitly did not want the wider Jewish population to know about was indeed an act of defiance because it commemorated Jewish lives long after the end of the war.[32] Therefore, while polemic resistance was contemporarily ineffective in terms of saving and preserving Jewish lives, the information gathered that was retained after the war offered a more intangible form of resistance. Due to the information gathered and retained by individuals such as Emanuel Ringelblum, historians today have a greater understanding of what was known to the Warsaw Jewry during occupation, and even how resistance movements operated and sought to save Jewish lives.[33] For instance, in his book, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Ringelblum documented the work of Polish Catholics who saved Jewish children from the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by hiding them on the Aryan side.[34] Although instances such as these were fairly rare in proportion to the amount of Jews who did survive the war, Ringelblum’s method of resistance meant that those who did save Jews could be commemorated after the end of the war.[35] Therefore, Yahil was correct to suggest that Jewish resistance did not directly lead to the saving of Jewish life, at least in terms of polemic resistance. However, this form of passive resistance should not be overlooked in terms of commemorating Jewish life, and, more importantly, providing details for historians like Yahil to understand Jewish resistance and draw conclusions accordingly.

Upon reflection, it is understandable that Yahil came to the conclusion she did regarding the success of Jewish resistance movements in their aims to preserve Jewish lives from an increasingly vicious Nazi Judenpolitik. On the surface, instances of armed resistance often led to far more Jewish deaths, both in terms of casualties from combat and reprisals in retaliation for the resistance. Furthermore, the gathering of information about mass killings elsewhere in occupied territory rarely led to any significant number of Jewish lives being saved, as very few believed the reports from courier systems established by organisations like ŻOB. To overcome political, religious and ideological differences which divided Jewish movements before the war in order to unite against the Nazis illustrated a form of successful resistance in the context of the Holocaust which Yahil overlooks. Unfortunately, Yahil’s conclusion does not take such smaller instances of success into account, as if they were not of significance in comparison to the larger Jewish death toll which was uncovered after the end of the war. Therefore, instances of polemic resistance, where information was gathered and preserved in order to defy Nazi plans for total Jewish annihilation, were not considered. Likewise, the success of isolated instances of armed Jewish resistance, such as the work of the Bielski partisans, also have no place in Yahil’s statement. As such, while it may have been acceptable to start any discussion of Jewish resistance so pessimistically in 1968, so much more information has come to light since then, that even minor successes of isolated instances of Jewish resistance can be understood and appreciated. Being devised in 1968, Yahil’s conclusion can be excused; today, however, historians have a duty to acknowledge all forms of Jewish resistance, and assess their respective successes accordingly.

(Cover Image: Yitzhak Zuckerman testifying at the Eichmann Trial)

[1] Dan Michman, ‘Jewish Leadership in Extremis’, in D. Stone (ed.), The Historiography of the Holocaust, (Basingstoke, 2004), p. 319.

[2] Ruby Rohrlich, ‘Introduction’, in R. Rohrlich (ed.), Resisting the Holocaust, (Oxford, 1998), pp. 1-2.

[3] Reuben Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, (London, 1974), p. xv.

[4] Gunnar S. Paulsson, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945, (New Haven, 2002), pp. 138-139.

[5] Rohrlich, ‘Introduction’, p. 1.

[6] Avinoam Patt, ‘Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto’ in Patrick Henry, Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis, (Washington, 2014), p. 393.

[7] Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, Translated by Ina Friedman, (Indiana, 1989), p. 364.

[8] David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49, (London, 2016), p.615.

[9] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, pp. 594-595.

[10] Ibid, p.616.

[11] Ibid, p. 625.

[12] Jürgen Stroop, ‘Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr’ (The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More), 16th May 1943, http://phdn.org/archives/holocaust-history.org/works/stroop-report/htm/intro001.htm (Last Accessed: 08/02/2017); cf. David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49, (London, 2016), p.616.

[13] Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, pp. 125-126.

[14] Cesarani, Final Solution, p.615.

[15] Ibid, p.616.

[16] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Third Edition, (New Haven, 2003), p.521.

[17] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, pp. 594.

[18] Yitzhak Zuckerman, Barbara Harshav (ed.), A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, (Berkley, 1993), p. vii.

[19] Cesarani, Final Solution, pp. 453-455.

[20] Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943, p. 311.

[21] Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, (Oxford, 1993), p. 80.

[22] Nechama Tec, ‘Jewish Resistance in Belorussian Forests: Fighting and the Rescue of Jews by Jews’, in R. Rohrlich (ed.), Resisting the Holocaust, (Oxford, 1998), pp. 77-79.

[23] Ibid, pp. 81-82.

[24] Michman, ‘Jewish Leadership in Extremis’, p. 319.

[25] Ibid, pp. 319-320

[26] Rachel L. Einwohner, ‘The Need to Know: Cultured Ignorance and Jewish Resistance in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Vilna, and Lodz’, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3 (2009) 407-408.

[27] Patt, ‘Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto’, 406-407.

[28] Marianna B. Kaufman, ‘Two Women of the Zionist Socialist Youth Organisations: Warsaw, 1939-1943’, MA Thesis, (Emory University, 2000), p. 5

[29] Einwohner, ‘The Need to Know’, 407.

[30] Michael R. Marrus, ‘HOLOCAUST HISTORY: Ghetto Fighter: Yitzhak Zuckerman and the Jewish Underground in Warsaw’, The American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 2 (1995), 280.

[31] Kaufman, ‘Two Women of the Zionist Socialist Youth Organisations’, pp. 4-5.

[32] Yehuda Bauer, The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness, (Toronto, 1979), p. 35.

[33] Emanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, (Illinois, 1992), pp. 2-7.

[34] Ibid, pp. 143-145.

[35] Simone Gigliotti and Monica Tempian, ‘Introduction’, in S. Gigliotti and M. Tempian (ed.), The Young Victims of the Nazi Regime: Migration, the Holocaust, and Postwar Displacement, (London, 2016), pp. 1-3.

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